Whether constructing a 182m statue at a cost of Rs.2,500 crore is the wisest use of resources is obviously something that only fine economists serenading the Gujarat model can explain
A major problem Hindu nationalists have is the absence of national heroes that they can claim, the narratives around whose lives they can stir people. There are pre-independence social reformers, but they were reforming Hinduism, implying that their faith wasn’t perfect and its practices needed reforming. And the principles and ideals the reformers championed, like equality between men and women, or equality of all people, are not the topics the current crop of Hindu nationalists want to talk about, unless they are talking about somebody else’s faith.
Adding to the conundrum is the fact that the founding fathers and mothers of India’s freedom struggle were largely cut from the Gandhian cloth and believed in Gandhi’s inclusive ethos, precisely to challenge the two-nation theory so dear to Muhammad Ali Jinnah. When you ask Hindu nationalists who their heroes are, eventually they are forced to name men with a rather narrow sectarian appeal: Jana Sangh stalwarts like Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Hindu Maha Sabha’s Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, and Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. These men have a large following, but in a big country, even exceptions run into millions. And Godse apart, independent India has been magnanimous enough to honour these men —there is a square in Mumbai named after Mukherjee, a hospital named after Upadhyay in Delhi, and Parliament has a portrait of Savarkar. Pradeep Dalvi’s Marathi play Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy (It’s me, Nathuram Godse speaking), which presents Gandhi’s assassin’s point of view, has been banned in the past, but courts have revoked the ban, and it has been staged off and on, sometimes performed with security protection. In Anand Patwardhan’s epic film, Jai Bhim Comrade, we see people coming out of the theatre admiring Godse.
But these Hindutva icons can’t rouse the nation. In his search for heroes, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has championed the saffron-clad Swami Vivekananda, whose 150th birth anniversary falls this year. Hindutva activists have been wearing Vivekananda masks at public rallies. But Vivekananda represents a curious choice.
Over the past two decades Hindutva gained many foot soldiers when its leaders reminded them that they must reclaim the sites where their temples once stood, but which conquering Muslim invaders destroyed, building mosques at those spots. Ayodhya was the first; Kashi, Mathura and others would follow.
What would Vivekananda make of such zeal? In 1898 he returned to Belur after a pilgrimage to Kashmir, and told a disciple a story. One day, while worshipping, the thought arose in his mind: “The Mohammedans came and destroyed (Mother Bhavani’s) temple, yet the people…did nothing to protect her. Alas, if I were then living I could never have borne it silently.” As he wallowed in sorrow, he heard a divine voice. The goddess spoke to him, saying: “It was… my desire that the Mohammedans destroyed this temple. It is my desire that I should live in a dilapidated temple… What can you do? Shall I protect you or shall you protect me!”
Indeed, are Gods, if they exist, so weak that they need mere mortals to protect them? If Hindutva adherents were to reflect on that parable, they’d have to reorient their outlook, or seek another icon whose mask they could wear.
Vivekananda is not the only historic figure misunderstood by Hindu nationalists. Now Modi is trying to turn Vallabhbhai Patel into an icon of a kind of nationalism antithetical to the one Patel believed in. Patel banned Hindutva’s ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and despite his political differences with Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel accepted with grace when Gandhi chose Nehru to lead India.
When Modi suggests that Patel, not Nehru, should have been India’s first prime minister, he is questioning Gandhi’s choice. Modi’s desire to elevate Patel is more about belittling Nehru (and, by implication Gandhi) than honouring a hero the nation is forgetting. (And Patel is hardly forgotten—from a large dam, an airport, colleges and universities, including an educational township, in Gujarat, a stadium in Mumbai, a police academy in Hyderabad, a prominent school and colleges in Delhi, and roads in almost all major Indian cities, Patel’s name appears everywhere in India, as it should). Whether constructing a 182m statue at a cost of Rs.2,500 crore—even if it is under a public-private partnership model—is the wisest use of resources is obviously something that only fine economists serenading the Gujarat model can explain and rationalize. Yes, other political parties have also used state resources to build monuments honouring their leaders, but isn’t the whole point of Modi’s narrative that he is different? And isn’t the hero he is honouring the standard-bearer of the Congress, not the RSS, nor the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor?
But why is Modi obsessed with heroes? Bertolt Brecht comes to mind: in his play, Life of Galileo, Andrea laments: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.”
But recall Galileo’s reply: “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.”
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at [email protected]. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to


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